Commentary: Council offers alternative bridge design

I am responding to recent articles and letters about the bridge at Morgan Ford in Warren County. The Piedmont Environmental Council submitted an alternative design for the bridge which the Virginia Department of Transportation has not shared publicly. The council design addresses the county’s safety concerns but unlike the VDOT design, it preserves the openness and history of the existing park. Here is a comparison of the two designs:

The council design raises the height of the new bridge by 2 feet, 9 inches. The VDOT design raises the bridge by 8 feet. The lower height of the council design maintains views of the river and requires less supporting road structures, saving money.

The council design would reduce flooding to nine days annually from the current 56 days. The VDOT proposal will reduce flooding to one day. Both designs will require planned precautions for flooding and alternate paths of travel during floods.

Both designs include two-way traffic and canoe passage beneath the bridge.

The council design recommends a 15 mph speed limit; VDOT recommends 25 mph.

The council design is specific to the Morgan Ford site and does not require extensive supporting road work. The limited bridge height will preserve the existing park as well as Smoke Town, an historic African American settlement originating in the late 1700s.

VDOT is using its standard bridge design — one used across the state with few modifications. In some applications this “one size fits all” bridge works well as with the Indian Hollow Bridge in Warren County where the river is narrower and the banks are steep.

The river at Morgan Ford is wide with long sloping banks and wide beaches plus a small park that is used by people for swimming, playing, fishing, and relaxing. For the VDOT design to work, a long connecting road structure, equal or greater in length to the bridge, is required, and it is this structure that destroys the park and Smoke Town. The different terrain and land use of Morgan Ford dictates a site-specific design.

The council’s design will cost substantially less, up to $6 million less, than the VDOT design.

The council’s design includes pedestrian and bike access and allows people to fish from the bridge while VDOT’s design does not. Both the Warren County Comprehensive Plan and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Planning Commission support bike and walking trails to encourage alternate modes of transportation and resident exercise. The VDOT plan ignores these options.

The council’s proposal recognizes that a new raised two-lane bridge will bring high traffic volumes through the Rockland Rural Historic District and that this traffic volume increase will degrade the district. The council’s proposal includes recommendations to mitigate the adverse effects of the high traffic volume, including traffic calming measures and an additional route for commuters that would take the pressure off of the Rockland Rural Historic District. VDOT says this is only a bridge project.

The advantages of the council’s bridge proposal are well worth taking the time for a second look. The end product, a new bridge, will be with Warren County residents for the next 100 years, and it should both augment the natural and historical assets while providing safety for generations to come.

The rush to install the VDOT design because of safety concerns can be easily resolved by installing simple and inexpensive warning and regulatory traffic signs and speed bumps alerting drivers to the change from two to one lane on the existing bridge. Gates already stop people from crossing the bridge during floods. Having addressed the problem of safely crossing the existing bridge, our leaders can take the time to pursue a design that works for all.

VDOT is sponsoring a public hearing about the Morgan Ford Bridge Project from 4-7 p.m. Feb. 4 at the North Warren Fire Hall. Verbal and written comments will be taken by a court reporter and will not be presented to an audience. I hope everyone concerned with the Morgan Ford park and bridge will attend and comment on both proposals.

Mary Ryan is a Front Royal resident.